Some call them everyday miracles. Some call it coincidence. Some view it as synchronicity – the simultaneous occurrence of seemingly unrelated events that appear to be connected. Some view it as luck.
Whatever it is, Bill Totten, 92, a retired postmaster from Alexis, Ill., has experienced such events throughout his life. Now residing in an assisted living facility near his hometown, Totten recently recalled a couple of those incidents from his days in Korea.
It was Dec. 26, 1952. Bill Totten, then an airman first class, was in charge of the post office at Chinhae (K-10) Air Base, South Korea. In the early morning hours of that day, Totten was awakened by two MPs. A Douglas C-47D transport operated by the Royal Hellenic Air Force had crashed during its initial climb, ending up in a field 2.8 miles from the base. Sadly, all 14 occupants – 5 crew and 9 passengers – were killed instantly. Being in charge of the post office, it was Totten’s duty to help locate the mail bags on board.
“We had been getting mail onto a daily routine flight,” he recalls. “We had been socked in by the weather for some time, and I had quite an accumulation of mail – some of it pretty important - go out on that flight.”
Totten understood better than most why the top brass wanted to find the mail bag immediately. Totten had sent a full pouch of registered mail that included $60,000 in military pay scrip and $11,000 in cash money orders. He was responsible for all of it. The pouch was locked with a heavy brass lock with a meter that turned like an odometer each time someone opened the pouch. Totten recorded the odometer number in his paperwork each time he locked the pouch. Even if a pouch was destroyed, the lock proved to the military brass that the postmaster was the last one to close the bag.
Totten was shocked when he arrived at the site.
“They had a tremendous load of gas,” he said. “There were little bits of flame all over. And, of course, the odor was something else. I’ve never experienced an odor like that.”
“Well, if that mail ever was here, there’s no mail here now,” Totten eventually told an officer at the site. “Nothing could have survived that gasoline explosion and high heat.”
“I expect you’re right,” the officer responded, and both men turned away to return to the base. Totten was both sickened by what he had witnessed and fully aware of his responsibilities tied to the mail pouch and the money orders in it.
A postal inspector from Tokyo arrived the next day.
“He told me they had cleared me of (responsibility for) everything but the $11,000 of cash money orders,” Totten explained. In effect, they had no proof that the airman put the money in the pouch and on the aircraft.
“They were desperate for that lock,” he said. “It would prove those money orders. They weren’t worried about anything else. But there was nothing they could do.”
The postal inspector, a captain, had already made four trips to the crash site within a few days, when Totten joined him for a fifth and final trip.
Their hearts sank when they arrived.
“When we got there, there were probably 100 Koreans with containers and chopsticks,” he recalls. “They were picking up the little pieces of aluminum that the explosion had spewed out in the immediate area of that crash,” he explained. The citizens were attempting to clear the heavily furrowed farm land of debris so they could continue to farm the land.
An exasperated Totten sighed. “OK, if that lock ever was here, it’s gone now,” he said over his shoulder, as he walked the furrows of dirt.
“I expect you’re right,” the captain said. “Let’s go.”
Totten, walking five steps ahead, did an about-face, kicking a clod of dirt in his path as he turned.
There, unearthed by the clod of dirt, was a piece of brass. And it was in nearly pristine condition.
“I looked down and there it was – that lock,” he recalls, smiling.
(Editor’s note: Totten didn’t hear about the lock during the remainder of his service in the Air Force. Ten years to the date of the crash, Totten received a letter from the U.S. Postal Service. Only then had he been officially cleared of responsibility for the money.)
The next year, Totten was headed to Masan, north of the Chinhae base. A contingent of U.S. Marines was based at Masan, and Totten’s outfit had become buddies with the Marines. The former often traded liquor for the better-fitting two-piece fatigues of the Marines.
“We swapped booze for the fatigues,” he explained, laughing. “The poor souls didn’t get any booze. We had too da-- much. It wasn’t too difficult to make a trade.”
Totten was late getting away from the base that particular day, and he noticed the skies darkening. He hoped to make it to Masan before the storm. He hadn’t gotten far on the country road when the fast-moving storm appeared to be approaching.
“I thought I had better get back out of there and get to camp,” he said.
Coming to a T in the road, Totten glanced down the road and spotted something in the distance.
“I got a little closer and there were two Army MPs,” he said.
"They clearly weren’t guarding anything. Or capable of guarding anything.
They were as drunk as anybody you ever saw in your life,” he said. “One of them was still on his feet,” he recalls.
The other was lying in a nearby ditch.
In some circumstances, it would have been funny. In wartime, it was a dangerous situation, due to weather, the enemy or local robbers.
Totten half-walked, half-carried the still-standing but staggering MP to his jeep, loaded him into the passenger seat and tied him down. He then crawled into the ditch and dragged the second MP out of the ditch, across to his jeep, and made several attempts to heave him onto the jeep, laying him horizontally across the back.
Back on the Chinhae base, he pulled into the first aid station and laid on the horn. Two corpsmen came out and dragged the MPs off the jeep. A major quickly arrived and looked them over before sending Totten on his way.
Totten realized he – or better yet, the MPs – were lucky that he turned around in that spot at that time.
Three days later, Totten was approached by a couple of other MPs.
“Your friends left in handcuffs,” one told Totten, agreeing that they were lucky that Totten found them at the right moment. “They would have died out there.”